Lambda Lore

What’s in a name?

As QSaltLake undergoes a metamorphosis, I am reminded of what Shakespeare asked nearly 400 years ago. “What’s in a name?” He answered this rhetorical question by stating, “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

We today, within the gay community, are still trying to find that sweet name that denotes and connotes the modern civil rights movement based on sexual affection and gender identity. It appears to me that we are influx. Are we homosexuals, gays, GLBTs LGBTQs or queers? While some embrace the word queer, others abhor it. “I’d like for you to meet my queer son.” Have you met my “dyke daughter?” If it offends some of us can you imagine how our allies must feel? Parents and friends of sodomites? It’s a conundrum.

For centuries, we who love the joy of gay sex have had no input in what we called ourselves. We were forced to simply accept the pejorative epithets applied to us. Religion called us sodomites, witches and sinners. The secular legal system said we were guilty of buggery, the heinous crime against nature, the unspeakable crime, and sodomy. The psychiatric and medical professionals called us inverts, deviants, Sapphics, lesbians and homosexuals. Our neighbors, however, mostly called us perverts, molesters, monsters, faggots, pansies, fruits, sissies, tomboys, punks, bulldaggers, bull dykes and of course queer. “You queer!” That word was the worst; akin to the “n-word,” which we can’t even say – we just say “n-word.”

As early as 1869, gays have tried to empower by choosing our own name to describe same-sex love. The best we could come up with was “uranian” and “homosexual.” The term uranian alluded to the philosopher Plato’s belief that same-sex love was the highest form of love. It didn’t stick, mostly because it had a positive connotation which society was not ready to embrace. However, society was ready to accept that same-sex love was a form of mental illness. Our term homosexual, which is an unfortunate hybrid of a Latin root and a Greek prefix, was adopted by the medical and psychological professionals to label same-sex attraction as a pathology.

Believe it or not, gays in the early 20th century quickly adopted this appellation since the word homosexual did not have a criminal connotation like sodomite. Liberals saw homosexuals no longer as criminals, but as mental degenerates. Hard to imagine this was a step up, but it was. Criminal laws were being changed, and enlightened judges stopped sentencing men to 20 years of hard labor in state penitentiaries.

I like to upset people by telling them that there were homosexuals before there were heterosexuals. But it’s true! Technically, the noun “homosexual” was coined in 1869 while the term “heterosexual” was first published in 1892 in C.G. Chaddock’s translation of Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis.” The word was created to differentiate between homosexuals and non-homosexuals. Even then, heterosexuality only came into medical use in the early 1920s, and was not widely popularized until the swinging ’60s.

Heck, I tell folks that there wouldn’t be straight people if not for us homos. The expression “straight” as in “to go straight” originated in the mid-20th century as gay slang for not engaging in homosexual sex. One of the earliest uses of the word in this way is documented in G. W. Henry’s book, Sex Variants II, published in 1941. Henry’s book contained conversations with homosexual males who used the term to refer to ex-gays; although, over time it has come to mean anyone not homosexual.

By the mid 20th century homosexuality became the generally accepted word for same-sex love within society. It was cemented in the public mind during World War II when medical professionals in the armed forces were trained to screen out homosexuals. For thousands of homosexual men and women it was the first time they heard the word applied to their sexual orientation. Then after the war, boy oh boy, the Kinsey Report shocked America by saying homosexual conduct was not that uncommon. However, by the early 1950s the word became associated with subversion as well as perversion as America entered a cold war against godless Communism. Anything effeminate was thus perceived as un-American.

Out of the oppression and attempted suppression of homosexuals came a fledgling movement which emerged during this time to promote the humane and fair treatment of gay people. This movement adopted the odd term “homophile” to replace the word homosexual. Phile is a Greek suffix for “love of.” It was not much better then uranian but it had a good run, politically uniting the gay civil rights movements in the 1960s under the term “North America Conference of Homophile Organizations.”

Some ignorant people are under the erroneous impression that homosexual only means men. That’s crazy. It was a term to describe people of same-sex orientation male or female. When I see newspaper reporters writing, “homosexuals and lesbians” it drives me nuts! However, I might point out we do the same thing every time we say gay and lesbian. Gay does not exclude women. It’s a genderless word with the same meaning as homosexual. It’s like saying gay men and women and lesbians. Lesbian, on the other hand, is a noninclusive word. I have known many  gay women but never once a lesbian man.

The use of the term lesbian was rarely used until after the Stonewall Rebellion and was primarily adopted by some gay women as part of the “Radicalesbian” separatist movement of the mid 1970s. It was during this period that gay organizations became “lesbian and gay.” Lesbian, like the word homosexual, first came to prominence in medical literature in the early 20th century to describe tribiasm (woman-on-woman sex), but by 1925 the word became pejorative in mainstream somewhat as a female equivalent to the word sodomite. To call a woman a lesbian was a great effrontery to her femininity.

While formally the homophile movement was growing through the efforts of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitus, among most gay people, slang terms were coming into popular use. “Punk” was a word for young men who serviced older men, “butch” and “femme” were used within the women’s community as well as “bull dyke” for more aggressive masculine women.

Predominately within the same sex-love communities the word “gay” was increasing being use as code for activities that were not “straight.” The term, gay, meaning light and happy also meant “naughty,” as in a “gay blade” — a man who was sexual promiscuous. In jazz clubs of the 1920s and ’30s the term “gay cats” was applied to homosexual men and women. Gay was especially adopted by women during World War II as a code for homosexual parties.

In the 1960s, gay had become so synonymous with homosexual in New York City, that the Village Voice would not use the word in its classified ads because it was obscene. All that changed in 1969. Stonewall, which was mostly a youth movement, threw off the term homosexual and homophile as being too accommodating to the establishment, much like blacks having rejected “colored people” and “Negro.” The term gay was established as the new positive signature for the homosexual civil rights movement. Gay Liberation and Gay Pride were born.

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